Africa is a continent with incredible hope and opportunity along with incredible challenges. When visiting Africa, one hears about challenges regarding basic human needs such as nutrition and health care. One also hears about the leadership challenges South Africa currently faces. Upon further reflection after visits to several organizations, including Olam International, Philani, and the African Leadership Academy, it is clear that women in Africa are uniquely positioned to move the continent forward economically and politically. Based on the author’s experience in South Africa, there are three key areas where women can have a substantial impact: (i) agriculture, (ii) health education and (iii) leadership in politics and business. These areas will be the focus of the analysis below.

Agriculture, which is dominated by women in Africa, should be the continent’s top priority as it transitions from reliance on commodity exports. From a health perspective, a continent with 16% of the world’s population has almost 70% of the global HIV/AIDS cases, 88 % of the global cases of malaria and significant maternal and infant mortality rates.1 Health education and disease prevention continue to be a major concern. And in 2015, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, 14 of the 25 countries perceived to be most corrupt, are in Africa, highlighting the need for strong leadership in Africa in the coming decades.

The Current Environment for Women in Africa

The 24th African Union Summit took place in January 2015 with a hopeful theme and a focus on the next 50 years of socioeconomic development in Africa. 2015 would be the “Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”.2 The 2063 African Union agenda’s aspirations include “inclusive growth and sustainable development”, where “development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth”.3

In the last decade, countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have seen GDP growth rates close to 6%, and although that has slowed since 2015, the slowdown can largely be attributed to macro-economic forces negatively impacting the entire global economy rather than an Africa-specific slowdown. Despite the slowdown, many SSA countries’ growth rates will still exceed 5% in 2016, and the average GDP growth in SSA between 2016 and 2020 is predicted to exceed the global average (at 4.1% vs. a global average of 3.6%4). FDI continues to rise with a move away from commodity-based industries and an increased focus on technology, telecommunications, financial and business services.5

Despite the relative hope of economic progress in Africa, the statistics regarding women’s empowerment across SSA is grim. According to a 2015 United Nations report6, 40% of women are married before they turn 18; only half receive adequate health care during child birth; and female genital mutilation (FGM) is still common across much of Central and Western Africa. According to a 2011 Ernst & Young Women of Africa report7, women are socially, politically and economically underrepresented in Africa. Their potential to impact the progress of their families, their communities and their countries is a resource that has yet to be fully realized. Despite significant involvement in the informal African economy, including agriculture (crop production and animal husbandry), food processing, domestic labor and child care, women are severely underrepresented in firm ownership, management participation and formal workforce participation. Gender pay gaps are a significant issue as well. Over 70% of women in SSA are employed in the informal labor force, where the gender pay gap is 28% compared to 6% for the formal workforce.8

Data regarding female participation in the workforce from the World Bank Enterprise Surveys group shows that, despite accounting for over 50% of the population, the proportion of full-time workers that are female in SSA is only 29%, the percentage of firms with a female top manager is less than 15%, while the percentage of firms with majority female ownership is less than 12%.9 Compare that to the United States where 57% of women participate in the labour force and almost 43% of full-time workers are female.10 Some of Africa’s largest economies (based on 2015 GDP data), including Egypt, Morocco, Angola, Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania, are below 10% participation on several of those measures (See APPENDIX: Figure 1).

In South Africa, the post-apartheid Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) programme has encouraged participation in firm ownership, management and skill development in the formal labour force. This programme includes black women, but because enterprises with revenue under R10 million are considered to be “Exempt Microenterprises”, many of the small-scale operations managed by women in the informal labour force are unlikely to benefit from this intervention.

Areas of Opportunity: Agriculture, Health Education and Leadership

Africa has been slow to adopt the goals outlined in the Platform for Action that was developed at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, which called for focus and action on poverty reduction, equal rights, access to economic resources and financial services, education and illiteracy, violence against women, health care and political participation.11 Based on the author’s experience in South Africa, it is evident that female involvement and opportunities in agriculture, health education and political or business leadership are areas where significant progress can be made.

Agriculture.At the most basic level, agriculture provides the nutrition needed to survive through subsistence farming. In Africa, agriculture is also a gateway to broader economic opportunity, particularly for women. During a visit to Olam International, a global agri-business organization that operates in 70 countries, it was evident that Africa has enormous agricultural potential. At 20% of potential crop yield, sub-Saharan Africa has the “lowest actual crop yield as a percentage of potential yield anywhere” in the world.12

Despite being food secure in 1981, Africa now imports over 83 billion13 in agricultural products, including basics such as wheat, oils, sugar, rice and maize. Not even the basics can be produced in a region that has all the resources required to be food secure – with 25% of the world’s arable land, it only produces 10% of the world’s agricultural output.14 These themes were echoed at the 2016 World Economic Forum on Africa (Kigali – May 2016), where speakers focused on investment in agriculture in Africa, particularly with farmers who cultivate between 2 and 10 hectares.15 The majority of these farmers are women, whose agricultural productivity is 30% lower than men due to a lack of training, financing and other inputs.16

Olam International prides itself on its relationships with over 1 million small-scale farmers in Africa and has already focused on the 80% of food in Africa that is grown by women farmers.17 Olam’s focus on gender equality in farm inputs, training and support in an effort to increase crop yields in a region that has such significant potential, is important. However, additional progress is needed to empower women through education, access to financing, and land ownership.

On a hopeful note, beyond Olam’s efforts described above, encouraging progress is being made. Examples include the Coca Cola Foundation, which has made a commitment to economically empower 5 million women by 2020.18 In 2010, in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, they launched Project Nurture, 19 which is focused on small holder farmers in their value chain. Coca Cola has also committed in 2011 to ensuring 50% of its new Micro Distribution Centers will be operated by women.

Land rights has also been a major issue in Africa and has been a focus for the African Development Bank Group. Women in Rwanda are now 17% more likely to be joint landowners due to gender-sensitive land reform20 (known as the Rwanda Land Tenure Regularisation Programme). These simple business concepts of ownership, increased productivity and competitiveness, facilitated by training programs and access to financing, have an immediate impact beyond the individual farmer. There is clear evidence that empowering women farmers benefits their communities directly and creates economic opportunities by increasing gender parity, creating educational opportunities and improving access to health care. It is critical that corporations and governments stay focused on these initiatives in Africa if they hope to realize its economic potential.

Health Education. Personally, the most impactful visit during the author’s trip to South Africa, was her time at the Philani Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition Project in Khayelitsha, one of the informal settlement areas outside of Cape Town. Through their Mentor Mother program, they provide home-based educational intervention in health, nutrition, and early childhood development. Mentor Mothers are often women who have successfully raised children in the same community. This programme, whose effectiveness in improving birth outcomes has been evaluated in a joint study by the University of Stellenbosch and UCLA, has been shown to significantly reduce malnutrition and improve maternal and infant mortality rates, thereby impacting the communities it serves for generations. At Philani, their focus is on the first 1000 days of a child’s life, including pregnancy. Mothers are encouraged to test for HIV/AIDS in an effort to minimize the incidence of mother to child transmission, to breastfeed their infants, and to engage with their children in simple, interactive games. These early interventions can help prevent life-long health challenges and thus have a positive impact on the economic development of a region. In addition, the Educare programme at Philani provides safe learn-and-play environments for children between 3 and 6 years old, while their mothers participate in skills training.

The challenges that Philani is trying to overcome are pervasive across Africa, where many countries experience some of the highest rates of maternal and infant mortality in the world. In 2013, SSA accounted for 62% of worldwide maternal deaths21. Rapid progress is possible, as evidenced by Rwanda’s experience after the 1994 genocide (See APPENDIX: Figure 2). Despite a health system that had been ravaged by the genocide, the success of this program involved Community Health Workers (CHWs) who were trained in regular pregnancy monitoring, childbirth, hygiene and family planning. As with the Mentor Mothers in Khayelitsha, obstetric and hospital interventions are encouraged when necessary, and health workers receive incentives when good outcomes are achieved. Through these efforts, women in Africa can have a significant positive impact on both HIV/AIDS, as well as maternal and infant mortality rates.

More broadly, health care and education are viewed as the most important priorities in SSA according to a Pew Research Center Survey of global attitudes.22 In January 2013, a program was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos to train and support one million Community Health Workers in sub-Saharan Africa.23 These CHW interventions, including those at Philani and in Rwanda, have a broader impact because they empower women to better care for themselves and their children. Healthy citizens are more productive and better educated. Gender-responsive service delivery has been a challenge in Africa because of cultural norms and bias; the involvement of women in CHW service delivery is therefore critical to the success of these programmes. Philani’s model of Community Health Workers providing nutritional and educational foundations is a great example of how education and female empowerment can move communities forward. The Philani model is already being expanded to other areas in South Africa, as well as Swaziland and Ethiopia.

In addition to the clear benefits to the communities that receive these services, the Mentor Mothers are empowered through this programme and others like it as well. As Community Health Workers, they receive comprehensive training and earn an income for the services they provide, which makes them part of the formal workforce. Beyond their own empowerment and progress toward gender equality, women who have the skills to make a living are far more likely to invest their earnings into the well-being of their children, ensuring a brighter future for subsequent generations of Africans.

Leadership. As discussed during the author’s visit to the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in Johannesburg, Africa has historically seen an erosion in institutional leadership and thus, leaders are able to have a relatively larger impact on the communities and nations they serve. According to Ernst & Young’s 2011 survey, 28% of female graduates leave Africa to pursue careers elsewhere.24 One of the key goals of the African Leadership Academy is to combat this “brain drain”25, where educated young men and women leave Africa to pursue careers abroad. The ALA encourages education abroad while creating incentives, such as forgivable school loans, to motivate these young leaders to return to Africa for at least 10 years before their 35th birthdays.

According to Transparency International and the World Bank, women’s involvement in government is correlated with lower levels of corruption.26 Providing greater gender equality in the workforce and political life may encourage more educated women to stay in Africa. Reducing corruption is critically important, particularly because it disproportionally impacts women and the poor. According to the 2015 Africa Survey by Transparency International,27 corruption is on the rise, governments are failing in their anti-corruption efforts, police and business are viewed as mostly corrupt, bribery is common and people feel powerless to create change (See APPENDIX: Figure 3). Interestingly, South Africa has recently become the worst offender in the perception that corruption has increased. This is likely due to the leadership of the ANC’s Jacob Zuma and is one area where South Africa has been unable to take a leadership role in recent years.

As South Africa may be learning, a country’s reputation for corruption has a profound impact on foreign direct investment and will be critical to Africa’s future economic development. A recent PwC study regarding corruption in Nigeria28, Africa’s largest economy in 2015, suggests that the impact of corruption can be significant. The study, which used the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published by Transparency International, found that “corruption has a long-run negative impact on growth, primarily through reduction in human capital and investment” and “is associated with lower investment”. Higher corruption is also negatively correlated with per capita incomes, standards of living, and education levels. The study’s conclusion was that Nigeria’s GDP could be $534 Billion (USD) higher in 2030 if corruption is addressed29. Assuming these detrimental effects are consistent across the continent, the negative impact of corruption in Africa is immense. In an effort to mitigate these negative impacts, countries in Africa should strive to reduce corruption wherever possible. Women’s leadership may be an important mechanism to address this issue. Unfortunately, women’s leadership and participation in politics has remained low in Africa. Only recently, with the election of Joyce Banda in Malawi in 2012 and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia in 2005, were women elected as heads of state in Africa. There have been other positive developments as well, including a gender parity law in Senegal, requiring that half of candidates for elected office be women30 and the highest number of female members of parliament are in Rwanda, at over 63%.31

A continued focus on women’s leadership development in business and politics in an effort to increase gender equality and minimize corruption, will be an important factor in Africa’s economic development in the future.


From the author’s South African visit, it is clear that Africa is not a country and that any approach to women’s empowerment with the broader goal of gender equality and economic development will require a thoughtful approach to regional and country specific considerations. That said, the opportunities for women to have a very significant impact on the economic development of Africa exists, particularly (though not exclusively) in the areas outlined above. Basic human needs such as nutrition, healthcare, education and self-determination will be positively impacted with a focus on women’s roles in agriculture, health education, and leadership. Women’s contributions can create the economic ripple effect that many countries in Africa need to realize their full economic potential.

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This report was presented to the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies for publication and was published in Africa Business on 9 November 2016.

Published:29 November 2016




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